Emmanuelle Dancourt and Ugo Charron: “We used the sense of touch to enter into olfactory territory”

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Emmanuelle Dancourt, journalist, ambassador of Anosmie.org and founder of the podcast Nez en moins, suffers from congenital anosmia: she was born without a sense of smell. Does that mean the universe of odours is inaccessible to her? This is the question that comes to mind when you listen to her talking about the fragrance Umema which Ugo Charron, a perfumer at Mane, composed with her. The experiment challenges us to think about how we could help anosmics access the olfactory world, in the same way that certain museums offer tours for visually impaired people, and, on a more innovative level, reflect on the possibilities of taking creativity in perfumery in a whole new direction.

Anosmia has been under the spotlight since the Covid-19 pandemic, and this project further reveals the limits of our society, very much rooted in the visual. What does living without smells mean to you?

Emmanuelle Dancourt: It can be understood both as an ailment and a disability. For people who have never had a sense of smell, like me, it’s an ailment. I was very young when I began to feel that something was missing. I put it down to different reasons over the years. In July 2021, I found out that I didn’t have an olfactory bulb – I was diagnosed very late on, in 2010 – and the little girl inside me finally understood what that missing thing was. 
In daily life anosmia is a handicap: you don’t pick up on food that’s gone off or dangers like gas leaks and fire, and you’re anxious about what you might smell like. But it also affects our sense of intuition since smell plays a key role in it, as illustrated by expressions we all use, like smelling danger or something smelling fishy.
For people who have lost their sense of smell, so who weren’t born with anosmia, it’s devastating: 60% of them suffer from depression. Which is why Jean-Michel Maillard created Anosmie.org in 2017. Following a traumatic accident, he realised that there was a total lack of treatment for his case. To begin with, Anosmie.org helped to dispel the feeling of isolation and solitude, because even the medical world didn’t know much about the problem. Some of the profits from the sale of our fragrance will be paid to the organisation. It has provided a form of psychological support, but Jean-Michel also asked researchers to create an olfactory rehabilitation protocol. He was determined that it should be free, and it was downloaded over 100,000 times during the pandemic. In the case of congenital anosmics, we also provide preventive support for parents so they can understand how their child functions – you have to realise that, right now, we are the ones training health professionals. In addition, we are seeking to make anosmia a legally recognised disability so that the government will have to put compensation in place. 
The reality is that when you’re anosmic, it’s like you do not have access to the normal world. And obviously the world of perfumes is not aimed at us: I’ve got no idea what a vetiver fragrance is, it means nothing to me.

Ugo: The thing about vetiver is that it doesn’t grow in Europe, so not many people are familiar with its smell: this raises the question of how we should talk about a perfume more broadly. And we also need to think about trying to find solutions for anosmics, because they want to wear perfume: our project meant that I got to reflect on this issue. 

You opted for a synaesthetic approach to creating Umema. The first time the two of you met was during an episode of Nez en moins on the subject of synaesthesia. How did the idea of launching a perfume together come about?

Emmanuelle: I knew next to nothing about the subject: I got in touch with Ugo so I could find out more about it. I asked him if he wanted to record the podcast episode without ever imagining that a composition would be born of our encounter. But when we met up in the studio in early September 2021, the idea spontaneously took root. After that it was thanks to Ugo that the project took off, because he proposed it to Mane then presented it at the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) in Miami in June. 

Ugo: I’d already worked on synaesthesia: I’ve done some in-depth research on the subject with books like Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman and The Superhuman Mind by Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow. I’ve also taken part in concrete experiments such as Smell X, when we explored the structure of smells based on the “bouba/kiki” effect observed by Wolfgang Köhler during his research on the shape of words [in 1929]. It very clearly shows that certain smells are described as round by the vast majority of people while others are described as pointed. And it does seem that this alternative way of evoking smells could be universalizable. While innate synaesthesia concerns 4% of the world population, we can also learn it! And when you think about it, perfumers constantly use synaesthetic language: a “warm” smell, for example, doesn’t actually mean anything! 

If you habitually use this method to create, how was the process for putting together this composition any different from a traditional project?

Ugo: Everything changed: to understand each other, we had to go into much more detail in terms of sensations. For instance, we used the sense of touch to enter into olfactory territory, because Emma is very tactile. I asked myself which ingredients I could use to build as much texture as possible, making it skin-like. We ended up on the Mane site in Bar-sur-Loup for several small-scale workshops with various components, tactile, visual, taste-based, and so on.

Emmanuelle: The Mane team had done an incredible job! I also chose flowers in a bouquet, not for their odour but for their appearance. Then I visited the factory, and since I couldn’t smell the raw materials, I tasted them.

Ugo: Emma immediately rejected the birds of paradise, which she found too visually aggressive: she likes things that are round, gentle, green. We also tasted foods centring on umami, which we put at the heart of the composition. It’s interesting as it’s a flavour that has never really been explored in perfumery, undoubtedly because monosodium glutamate, the main component in umami, doesn’t smell very strong. However, we can recreate the perception we have of it during retronasal olfaction.

Emmanuelle: Ugo told me that the brief was the most exhaustive he’d ever worked on in his life and, in parallel, Umema is a fragrance that only required a fairly modest number of trials, around thirty.

So how did the process for developing the creation work go, since Emmanuelle couldn’t then smell the different trials?

Ugo: We adopted a more experimental approach, which turned out to be really enjoyable, especially since we didn’t have a deadline or any financial constraints. When I came up with an interesting structure, I got the evaluators to smell it and that way I made progress. Then we sent the samples to Emma and her family, who smelled them in front of the camera so I could observe their reactions. Trial number 29 met with unanimous approval. It has a delicately green opening featuring lentisk and galbanum, as a nod to the countryside we both come from. I worked on the umami with, in particular, sage and a lovely extract of red algae, Mane’s Jungle Essence. What I wanted to do was create a salty gourmand: it focuses on chocolate because Emma loves it, with a gorgeous roast hazelnut Jungle Essence which gives it a toasted aspect without being brash. I didn’t feel like using flowers for their smell but, like her, for their effect, their texture: among others, I used Suederal, with its suede-like aroma. To recreate the idea of umami, I used a salty accord as my departure point (moss, sage, Atlas cedar and salicylates), which I then smoothed out with musk, sandalwood molecules and Tropicalone, a biotech molecule by Mane that is both creamy and soft.
But I still struggle with the idea that Emma will never be able to smell it!

And where did the perfume’s name come from?

Emmanuelle: We spent quite a long time finding it. Umamita was the working name Ugo used, referring to the umami; but I didn’t feel it was right for this perfume, because it made me think of Brazil and the beach – and I prefer winter and Nordic countries.

Ugo: It’s a very round name, very “bouba”! There’s also a word play with “hume Emma” [smell Emma] and the U from Ugo. But at the time, we didn’t imagine we were going to produce it on a larger scale!

You presented the perfume at the Miami WPC in June. Did you want to get a message across, and what sort of response did you see?

Emmanuelle: Perfume has a fairly strong symbolic value: it’s invisible, just like our disability. We were directing a general message at the profession: anosmics wear perfume. While traumatic anosmics can keep using their old fragrances, congenital anosmics are lost. It’s a way of sharing the world inhabited by other people, by all of you who constantly talk about smells, and which we constantly have to adapt to. But the message was also a reminder that we are all anosmic in the digital world.

Ugo: It meant we got to address perfumery specialists, to open the eyes of fragrance experts. And then people start asking themselves questions. A visually impaired woman asked if we were going to take the experiment further and devise an alphabet for anosmics like braille. It had never occurred to us. And it’s a fascinating idea!
But it’s important to understand that it’s not a “perfume for anosmics”, and it has a legitimate place on the market. The approach was different, it allowed us to put together a far more comprehensive brief, and allowed me to explore a new way of composing. 

So, when did you finally decide to market Umema?

Emmanuelle: The idea of marketing our creation arose at the show where we presented it to the public: during an interview with a journalist who asked us when it was being released. The thought had never crossed our minds! People who came to smell me were saying I couldn’t keep it to myself. So it seemed like we didn’t have a choice! But we need to be patient, it won’t be released until next year.

What did each of you get out of this experiment? 

Emmanuelle: Ugo gave me an olfactory identity; I’d even go so far as to say an olfactory soul. But the perfume is designed for everyone: the method Jean-Claude Ellena used to create Un jardin en Méditerranée, as he recounts in Le Journal d’un parfumeur, is exactly what Ugo did, by using me as his source of inspiration. 

Ugo: It was a really thrilling way of creating and I think the result shows that: the people who have smelled it tend to mention the texture pretty quickly! Experimenting with odours such as umami in this way gave me a different, more physical approach. It’s a bit like going to a concert: you can listen to music at home, but if you go out you get an added layer of physical and emotional experience. That’s the idea I’ve tried to capture with this perfume.

To find out more about Umema: umefragrance.com/ 

Photo credit: Emmanuelle Dancourt

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